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Can't Have a Movie Without Popcorn!

by Kathryn Milewski 2 years ago in cuisine
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My two favorite things, the history of their companionship, and how I got both for free.

If you ask my family what's a go-to gift to get me for my birthday or the food I'd most likely choose to eat if I were stranded on a desert island, they would tell you popcorn. Jiffy Pop, Jolly Time, kettle corn or covered in chocolate...I'll eat it all. One time, I even tried some blueberry flavored popcorn from Maine and it was delicious. My consumption of the food is so regular, my father is worried I might get cancer because of the fumes from heated microwave popcorn bags. If I were Georgie from Stephen King's IT and Pennywise the Dancing Clown tempted me with popcorn, there's no way I'd make it out of that sewer alive.

I don't know when my affair with the fluffy, crunchy, buttery snack of goodness began, but I do know my love for it probably has something to do with another love of mine: movies. I've been a cinephile for as long as I can remember, and I've done almost everything in the film biz - from acting to directing to writing film reviews and volunteering at film festivals. I've even worked a minimum wage job at a movie theater.

And yes, I was the girl who made popcorn at the concessions stand.

Candid gif of me silently judging a customer who said he didn't like popcorn.

But before I get into that, here's a bit of history for you. Popcorn was never intended to be eaten while watching films. The loud crunching patrons make while chewing it is the reason why some choose to avoid the movies altogether. In fact, popcorn used to be banned from theaters until the Great Depression. Once theater owners realized street vendors made large profits selling the snack to the masses, they crafted concessions stands into their lobbies. Now you'll find a popcorn machine at every movie theater.

Since theaters can't make all their money off ticket sales alone - most of that money goes to filmmakers and distribution companies - the money made from selling popcorn and other snacks keeps theaters afloat. So before you complain to the concessions worker that the popcorn prices are too damn high (They hear it every day! Yeesh!) please know that those astronomical prices help fund the exciting movie experience you're about to enjoy.

Here's a PBS video with more details about the history of popcorn at the theaters, if you're curious...

As previously mentioned, I worked at a movie theater from August to October of last year. (My last day was Halloween! And Tessa Thompson stopped by! But that's another story for another time.) Obviously, a deciding factor in picking a movie theater to earn my minimum wage in was for the free movie and popcorn perks. If you're wondering, the movie theater where I worked was the famous Angelika Film Center on Houston Street in NYC. That's the movie theater Phoebe yells to Rachel's taxi driver in Friends.

Although I had cleaning duties and occasionally checked tickets at the door, most of my time at the Angelika was spent working at concessions. There are a couple of questions I received regularly from customers, as well as some things I didn't know about movie theater popcorn until working the job. So here they are: some questions about movie theater popcorn you didn't know you wanted answered...

1. Why Is Movie Theater Popcorn Yellow?

It's actually not because the popcorn is buttered. That's why there are separate buttering machines at theaters. The reason why most movie theater popcorn comes out yellow is because canola oil is used to pop it. While the vegetable oil can be bought by theaters on the cheap, it's not super healthy and is a bit dangerous to use in popcorn machines because of flammability. That's why at the Angelika, coconut oil is used to pop kernels. Not only does the popcorn come out a pretty white color, but it's a far healthier alternative to canola oil. It also makes the popcorn taste great on its own. Regular customers and I rarely used salt and butter, because the coconut oil flavoring was delicious.

The soft, gleaming glow of healthy white popcorn.

2. Is The Popcorn Made Fresh?

I'll be honest with you...it depends on when you buy it and the movie theater you're buying it from. If you see a movie at a really late time, like a midnight showing or one of the last times listed for the theater, I can guarantee you that popcorn has been sitting in the case all day and is very stale. Get ice cream or a slushie instead.

Perhaps the best time to buy popcorn in a movie theater is around 7 pm. That's the time most movies start, and consequently, when most people come to the theater. The 7 pm rush is a nightmare for concession workers, but it's when the popcorn machine is poppin' nonstop to fill the demands of all the hungry customers.

Popcorn from the case isn't all bad. It does warm the corn. However, it doesn't keep it fresh. Concession workers are told by managers to push all the popcorn in the case up against the glass, that way the customers think there's more popcorn in the case than there really is. It also means that when you're ordering popcorn, you can't see if the employee is scooping from the top, where the corn is fresh, or from the bottom, where the corn is old. Keep that in mind when ordering a bag.

Some movie theater managers are adamant about putting all the popcorn in the case, some aren't. I pulled most of the popcorn at Angelika straight from the machine until my final days working there due to a request from management. Personally, I liked to put a fresh batch of popcorn in the machine right before or after a movie ended. That way customers entering the theater could see the corn popping, would be enticed to buy, and receive a fresh batch.

3. How Do You Make the Popcorn?

This differs from theatre to theatre, but at Angelika, we had a very large popcorn machine that could make a fresh batch in 5-7 minutes. After assembling the parts, there was a scooper that we used to dig into a drawer of popcorn seeds. We put the seeds into a mixer at the top of the machine, then threw in a dash of salt. We pushed a button that dispensed a stream of coconut oil. Then we closed the lid as the seeds mixed with the salt and oil. A couple minutes later, the popping started and we could open the lid to let the popcorn spill out.

It was important to keep the lid closed, or not open the lid too early, or else you could get stung by flamin' hot popcorn seeds. I never got hit by a flying one, but I was told by many they hurt like hell. One of my friends who worked at Angelika got hit in the boob. She says she still has the tiny burn mark to prove it.

4. What's it Like Sweeping Spilt Popcorn from off the Floor?

Just as horrible as you think.

When you work at the movies, you're used to popcorn being everywhere. In the lobby, in each theater...it naturally falls out of its bag, and part of the job is sweeping it up. The only time it becomes annoying is when someone leaves an ocean of spilt popcorn all over the floor, bag included, because they got embarrassed and decided not to tidy up a little. This happens more often than you would think.

If you have a large spill, don't be afraid to tell one of the movie theater employees before or after the show gets out. That way, they can better prepare for the cleanup. Having floor duties in a theater is tricky because you have to clean everything in a certain amount of time. If you're slow, the theater will still be dirty by the next showing. When there's a surprise popcorn spill to clean, it wastes more time.

5. What Do You Do With All the Leftover Popcorn at the End of the Day?

Oh, this is really sad...you throw it all out.

All of it gets dumped into trash bags, and the janitor takes them away. There's always A TON of popcorn left over at the end of the night. And it's not worth it to take some home with you, because at that point, it's stale.

It's the most depressing thing I've ever seen.

6. Okay, These Are All Great Questions, But How Can I Get Movie Theater Popcorn For Free?

Ah yes, the question we'd all like answered. It's a hard bargain to come by, but I will teach you, young grasshopper.

If you're not willing to work your butt off at a movie theater in exchange for free popcorn, I would suggest checking a movie theater's popcorn deals. At Angelika, if you buy a large bag of popcorn and eat it all, you can get a free refill. Some smart people buy the large bag, eat popcorn at the theater, then return to concessions once their movie has ended to get a whole bag of free popcorn to take home with them.

Other than that, sometimes you can get a free sample of popcorn in small cups. And other than that...you can try and sweet-talk a concessions worker into swindling you a smaller-than-small-size bag.

When you work at concessions in a theater, you constantly have to count how many popcorn bags you have so management knows how much has been sold. However, if the employees get a free popcorn perk, they can't eat their popcorn from the regular bags sold at the theater, otherwise the records will be wrong. Therefore, there are usually some spare bags hidden somewhere under the concessions counter for employee use. These bags are free, and although they're usually smaller than the "small" size bag sold at the theater, they hold a decent amount of popcorn. I've definitely sat through a movie with employee-size popcorn and had enough to fill me up.

You can ask the concessions worker if they have these bags on hand, but I can't guarantee you'll be able to get one unless you're a master at the art of persuasion.

Me trying to score free popcorn like...

Otherwise, I don't wholeheartedly recommend this option, as you might piss off the employee, or worse: their crazy manager.

The coronavirus has not taken away the ability to eat popcorn while sitting at home with a Netflix movie. However, it has split up the iconic duo when it comes to eating popcorn in a movie theater. As someone who enjoys going to the theater in my free time and watching films in a large crowd, this has definitely been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. I miss it so much.

Movie theaters have been hurt pretty bad because of the virus's restrictions. Therefore, when it's safe to sit indoors with strangers again and the theaters reopen, please show them some love and buy yourself a big ol' bag of popcorn, no matter the price. I can promise you that eating it while watching your next favorite flick is a combination you won't regret.

Feels like it's been a while since I've written a proper article on Vocal, so I'm happy to get back in the game! Follow me on social media @katyisaladybug if you have any questions, comments, or just want to know more about the crazy person I am IRL. Please be sure to drop this article a like if you enjoyed! Also, all my tips are still going to the BLM Network. Check my Vocal bio for more deets.

For this challenge, I'm recommending Julia Alfred's article about another famous food duo, PB & J. Although is it technically a trio? Because there's bread between the two? Ah, who cares. It's delicious and the first thing you think of when it comes to an "iconic duo." I definitely need to try that PB & J shot.

Anywho, I hope this story made you hungry for popcorn. Thanks for reading! :)

- Katy


About the author

Kathryn Milewski

Insta: @katyisaladybug

Also a blogger at Live365.com

Playlists, memoirs, and other wacky pieces.

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